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Monday, November 2, 2009

Lost orchard

Wednesday October 28, 2009

Lost orchard

Story and illustration by WAN CHWEE SENG

Beneath the Durian Tunggal lake lies a lostorchard and its submerged dreams.

I SAW it once, many years ago. Now as the car rounds the corner, I see it again – the vast expanse of the Durian Tunggal lake. As I bring the car to a halt, I see its grey, shimmering water. However, I am here not to admire its beauty, but rather to reflect on what lies below it. Deep below this stretch of water I know there is an orchard, an orchard that was once my grandpa’s pride and joy.

The grey shimmering water

My mind races back to the early 1950s when as scrawny schoolboys, my cousin and I visited grandpa’s orchard at Machap , which was about 16km from our house. Grandpa had started earlier that morning, traversing the long and hilly terrain, on his rickety bicycle. Grandpa was 79 years old, but he could outpace many a younger man. We did not have the courage nor the stamina to cycle with him and so we went by bus.
A rambutan tree in the orchard
As the bus screeched to a halt at our destination, we saw grandpa standing next to a small wooden hut built on raised stilts which he had constructed single-handedly. Following a dirt track, we soon found ourselves surrounded by a variety of fruit trees planted whimsically in disorganised harmony.
Sentul and durian trees towered over smaller rambutan trees and the lesser known pulasan and nam-nam trees. We wandered aimlessly, picking and savouring the fresh and succulent fruits. 

A pulasan tree
Pulasan fruits

Overhead, the morning air was filled with the chirping of birds and in the distance came the shrill cry of monkeys. There was a rustling of leaves as a huge monitor lizard waddled languidly and disappeared into a thick undergrowth.

The croaking of frogs caught our attention and soon our bare feet were squelching the squishy, soggy ground that led to the the edge of a rush-covered stream that snaked its way along the foot of a steep gradient.

A moss-covered tree trunk straddled the narrow, clear stream.
A tree trunk straddled the stream

 We were tempted to cross it but then we remembered grandpa’s words: “Don’t cross the stream, as I saw a communist’s flag recently on the branch of a tree.”

The Emergency was still on and Machap  was declared a “black area”. So there we stood staring anxiously at the forest-clad hill, expecting armed men to emerge any moment from among its dark shadows.
Suddenly, something stirred among the nearby rushes. Two black heads broke the surface of the water. And two baby otters with round, liquid eyes gazed innocently at us.
Unperturbed by our intrusion, they frolicked in the water before vanishing among the tall rushes. That magic moment will always be etched in my memory.
The fragrance of freshly baked tapioca that wafted through the afternoon air made our stomachs growl and we hurried towards grandpa’s hut. Grandpa was busy heaping hot ashes and burning coal onto freshly dug tapioca.
Sitting under the shade of a fruit tree, we tucked into the simple yet delicious fare while grandpa regaled us with interesting tales of his stay in that remote place.
Fanned by the cool breeze, my young mind started to wander and I began to visualise grandpa sitting all alone in his makeshift hut while he listened to the howling cold night wind knifing through the flimsy walls of the hut and to the sound of the wild boars foraging his vegetable plots. Was he ever scared?
While grandpa took his afternoon nap, we crept quietly to the roadside with bundles of rambutans in our hands. We thought we could help him sell some of the rambutans to passers-by. We waited and waited. Not a single vehicle went by. Darkness crept across the countryside and as we looked at the darkening sky, we noticed it was filled with dark flying objects that resembled Bram Stoker’s vampires.

“Flying foxes!” My cousin pointed excitedly at the dark mass that was heading
straight for grandpa's orchard.

Flying foxes heading towards the orchard

Flying foxes feasting on the ripe fruits
 As we neared the hut, the branches of a nearby tree started to shake as if it had been hit by a sudden gust of wind. Flying foxes had already begun to feast on the ripe rambutans.

We tried to chase them away. They rose momentarily above the tree top and then settled down to resume their feast.
Dusk had sponged the last ray from the evening sky when we finally boarded the bus home. As the bus pulled away, we caught sight of grandpa raking and heaping leaves onto a smouldering wood fire. He was preparing for another night in the wild.
Then one day grandpa stopped going to his orchard. We heard he had sold his orchard. He did not tell us why and we did not ask any question. He spent most of his time doing household chores and often he could be seen sitting forlornly on a long bench with a faraway look in his eyes.
Was he thinking about his orchard and its wild denizens? Grandpa’s health started to deteriorate and he soon passed away. Then only did we learn that his orchard had been acquired by the Government for the construction of the Durian Tunggal lake.
I do not know how long I have been sitting in the car. I suddenly realise that darkness has set in. I gaze up, half-expecting to see the sky fill with flying foxes. 
There is none.

A solitary stork is winging its way towards a distant wilderness

A solitary stork is winging its way westward towards a distant wilderness. I, too, decide to head for home. I have to tell my family about grandpa’s lost orchard or rather our lost orchard

1 comment:

  1. Congrats! Keep it up. Never too late or too old to blog! Paul